Transparency

upper story, deluge covenant & rainbow, fpceOn Monday evening, I accompanied my wife Therese to a banquet at which she and a few dozen others were honored with teaching awards.  The entertainment and food were wonderful.  I think the teachers forgot the awards entirely when the winner from the television program called “Cupcake Wars” served dessert. At that point, polite applause gave way to enthusiastic “ooohs” and “aaahs.”

The evening’s program included speaking parts by several people, including the host of a radio program and the C.E.O. of a large corporation.  The most engaging speaker was Jackie Joyner-Kersee, winner of six Olympic medals in track and field, and described by some sports writers as the greatest female athlete of the 20th century. Jackie explained the circumstances of her upbringing in East St. Louis, and then recalled the influence of educators in her life. There was a librarian who, understanding Jackie’s limited family finances, helped her find regular access to books. There was an assistant principal who challenged her poor behavior with the words, “We expect better things from you.”

In contrast to the other leaders on the program, Jackie’s speech was especially compelling. She gave what was essentially a personal testimony to the power of education in transforming her life. Her transparency about her story connected with the audience on a deep level.  Because Jackie could articulate sincere appreciation for the educators in her life, the educators in the room felt honored.

The radio-show host and corporate C.E.O. said all the usual things that are customary at events of this nature: they issued a proper welcome, and extended proper congratulations. In a crowded room of strangers, I might not have been any more self-revealing than they were. I’m certain that they benefited from the education they received, and probably could identify a favorite teacher in their experience. But, standing at the podium in a room full of educators, each failed to say a single word about his or her educational journey, or those who guided them along the way.

I found myself thinking about transparency as I read and re-read the Old Testament text for this 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time.  Jeremiah is remarkably candid about his limitations: “I do not know how to speak,” “I am only a boy.”[1] He doesn’t hesitate to express emotional anguish: “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick.” When he asks, “Is there no balm in Gilead?”[2] – A reference to a medicinal tree resin – it’s just one of many times throughout his story that we are given a window to view Jeremiah’s desperation. Yet, when contemplating God’s promised restoration, Jeremiah can be effusive: “Ah Lord God! It is you who made the heavens and the by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you. You show steadfast love to the thousandth generation …. O great and mighty God whose name is the Lord of hosts, great in counsel and mighty in deed …. You showed signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, and to this day in Israel and among all humankind, and have made yourself a name that continues ….”[3]  The glimpse we get into the prophet’s heart is one of the most appealing aspects of reading these long and often repetitious oracles. We learn that Jeremiah was no cardboard caricature of preacher. Like us, he experienced a full range of human emotion. Like us, he had faults and was not always quick to embrace God’s will. We’re encouraged by the implicit message that if God loved, accepted, and partnered with Jeremiah to accomplish great things, then there’s hope for us, too.

While we may be encouraged by the transparency of Jeremiah or Jackie Joyner Kersee, we’re not sure that we want to be transparent.  People like Edward Snowden, the former NSA analyst and now a fugitive from justice, or Private Bradley Manning, who leaked secrets to Wikipedia, show us that total transparency can be dangerous to others, even to the security of our nation. Our society has developed rules for guarding medical and financial records because too much transparency to the wrong people can cause great harm. Even Facebook, the website where we are able to share almost anything with anyone from any part of our life, has developed methods of sharing information with some of your contacts, but not others, because total transparency can bring trouble. We may want to share some information with our workplace associates, but not our family; or post something about a family health concern, without everyone at work knowing about it. I’ve noticed there are people who will share some of the most intimate details of their lives with total strangers on the internet, as long as their mother doesn’t see it. Each of us draws the line of privacy at different places.

The tension we feel between a desire for transparency and a desire for privacy leads me toward the theological point for today: We worship a God to whom our lives are transparent, an open book, no place to hide. In the text from Luke, a woman who has been crippled for eighteen years appears in the synagogue.  She says nothing, but Jesus seems to look right through her and understand her pain. Perhaps Jesus knew her from a prior encounter, or perhaps someone around him whispered a quick explanation about her condition. In any case, the Great Healer quickly sees and understands. Then, there’s Jeremiah’s book of oracles, which opens with a statement of God’s omniscience: God saw Jeremiah in the womb; before Jeremiah was born, God had looked into his soul and knew everything about him.

At first, it may sound frightening that God knows you and me completely, not only every virtue, but also every vice.  There’s a book by a Jesuit priest that was popular when I was coming of age, entitled “Why Am I Afraid to Tell you Who I Am?”  Father John Powell encapsulated the essential problem by saying, “I am afraid to tell you who I am, because, if I tell you who I am, you may not like who I am, and it’s all that I have.” If we worshiped a god characterized only by wrath and a desire for vengeance, then transparency would be terrifying.

But the Christian understanding of God makes transparency a source of comfort. One of my favorite preachers of yesteryear was Franklin Boreham, who tried to make the contrast. He said that we naturally shrink from those who know our sins, but know nothing of our temptations and trying circumstances.  But, from heaven, he said, it’s possible to see our lives with more understanding and pity. Turning a phrase in way that’s rarely done today, he says that when going out of dusk into daylight, there’s “not only a loftier purity, but also a larger charity.”[4]

To make the point just a bit differently: our transparency before God is comforting because God, knowing us completely, loves us unconditionally. In the words of the old hymns that are sung as gifts for worship today: “Just as I am, without one plea” … “O Lamb of God, I come” … discovering “love has broken every barrier down,” that “there is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.”  Praise God for his steadfast love and grace.


[1] Jeremiah, chapter 1.

[2] Jeremiah, chapter 8.

[3] Jeremiah, chapter 32.

[4] F. W. Boreham, “Old Photographs,” Rubble and Roseleaves, New York: The Abingdon Press, 1923, pp. 210-211.

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~ by JohnH1962 on August 25, 2013.

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